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How a rousing Russian tune took over our July 4th

Friday, July 04, 2003

By Andrew Druckenbrod, Post-Gazette Classical Music Critic

Cookouts, fireworks and the "1812 Overture." On the Fourth of July, we hold these truths to be self-evidently American, right?

Don't light the cannon fuses just yet.

The "1812 Overture" may be an American tradition, with its patriotic strains and thunderous battery. But while orchestras across the land, including the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra tonight at Point State Park, will perform it with clanging bells and cannon fire, the music could hardly be any more distant from the Stars and Stripes.

That's because the overture, written by famed composer Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, depicts Napoleon's retreat from Russia in 1812, not America's battles against the British, as many might think.

That's right -- at the height of most Independence Day ceremonies, Memorial Day pageantry or other fireworks displays, the "1812 Overture" blares strains of the French national anthem "La Marseillaise" and the old Russian national anthem "God Save the Czar "across our amber waves of grain. But this bizarre twist is not as unpatriotic as it might seem.

The obvious reason why the piece found a home during America's annual firecracker festival is that gunpowder loves company.

"It is one of the few pieces with good musical content that has cannons exploding," says Leon Botstein, president of Bard College and a conductor and music scholar who has written about Tchaikovsky.

The "1812 Overture" premiered in 1882 at the consecration of a church in Moscow commemorating Napoleon's retreat from Russia. Telling the story of the end of the French invasion of Russia in musical themes, "La Marseillaise" is eventually beaten back by a rousing Russian anthem and cannon fire and church bells. When performed with full-scale replica artillery (with blanks) today, the "1812 Overture" usually requires musicians to wear earplugs.

"It is the one piece of classical music that includes 'The Bombs Bursting in Air,'" says Deane Root, a music professor at the University of Pittsburgh and director of its Center for American Music.

But can the popularity of the piece be tied only to cannon fire? Bard's Botstein, for one, feels that although Tchaikovsky disparaged the "1812 Overture" as "very loud and noisy," the music should be given more credit:

"Tchaikovsky knew how to write a barn-burner, and they are really hard to write."

Tchaikovsky's popularity in America also played a role. "Tchaikovsky had a foothold in the late 19th century in the broadening public taste for classical music," says Botstein.

"He came to open Carnegie Hall in 1891 and was a kind of pop figure when he arrived in the United States."

While America was developing an affinity for Tchaikovsky, it was not having much success creating patriotic music of its own.

"With the exception of 'America the Beautiful,' the U.S. is short of patriotic hymns," says Botstein. "'The Star-Spangled Banner' is a tongue-twister; then you have 'America,' which is really the British national anthem. Being an immigrant nation, we are not offended by using another country's national anthem."

These developments set the stage for the Russian overture's remarkable transformation in America in the midst of the Cold War.

Though some ensembles had played the "1812 Overture" earlier -- Chicago's Grant Park Orchestra performed it on Independence Day 1935 -- most had done so only sporadically before the '70s. The PSO, for one, played it only four times prior to that decade. In 1974, however, the "1812 Overture" came into its own as a pan-American tradition.

That July 4, famed Boston Pops conductor Arthur Fiedler decided to perform the overture with fireworks, real cannons and a coordinated steeple-bell choir to increase attendance at the Pops' summer concerts on the Esplanade, says Bridget Carr, archivist of the Boston Symphony.

Also, the nation's bicentennial was around the corner and the desire to have a spectacular show outweighed Cold War conniptions.

"He was a good musician but the ultimate showman," says PSO clarinetist Thomas Thompson, who toured with Fiedler in 1962. "Audiences loved him, and he was a genius at marketing."

A massive, celebratory outdoor piece pushed by the nation's premier outdoor orchestra, whose July 4 concert was broadcast across the country, captured the public's imagination. Countless orchestras began performing the work outdoors, quickly solidifying the tradition and the piece's connection to American patriotism.

Annual performances became customary in the '80s and '90s; the PSO's tradition of performing it yearly on the Fourth at Point State Park started in 1981.

In the public domain

The speed of the transformation of the "1812 Overture" is amazing. But how did it happen?

"America and Russia have always had a kind of love-hate relationship, since the 19th century as rival giants," proffers Botstein. "We identify somewhat with Russia -- they had Siberia, we have the Wild West."

But because conductors, musicians and Americans in general would probably not have accepted this work during the Cold War if it were widely known to be a Russian victory piece, the "1812 Overture" first had to lose its original meaning.

That's essentially what happened.

Common sense says a creation by a composer -- or a painter, or novelist -- is completed when the last lines are done. But that's not necessarily the case.

"Almost any way that you look at it, a work doesn't end when the composer puts down the double bars -- that's when it begins," says David Grayson, professor of musicology at the University of Minnesota. "That's when it begins the process of reaching its audience, and from that moment on it takes on a life of its own."

Like a misbegotten statement that later proves the downfall of a politician, utterances are hard to control once proclaimed. "The composer may try to influence its subsequent use and meaning, but he or she will probably be unable to do so," says Grayson. "And the work will eventually enter the public domain."

A school of thought arose in the literary field in the '60s and '70s to try to define what might happen to texts after they are published. A leading figure, Hans Jauss, argued, "In the triangle of author, work and public, the last is no passive part, no chain of mere reactions, but rather itself an energy formative of history."

Many musical pieces change meaning over even short time periods. Sometimes it's due to a misunderstanding, as with Bruce Springsteen's anti-war song "Born in the U.S.A." being thought of as a patriotic anthem. Other times it's an innocent re-association, such as Rossini's "William Tell Overture" for "The Lone Ranger."

In other situations, a stripping of meaning occurs when a piece is appropriated for another use. Commercials are famous for this: Copland's "Rodeo" as the Beef Council's theme; Iggy Pop's day-in-the-life-of-a-heroin-addict's "Lust for Life" promoting a major cruise line.

Many may remember an earlier shift in meaning that the "1812 Overture" itself acquired when used in Quaker Puffed Wheat TV spots.

"To Americans, this might conjure up memories of childhood, watching television, or the family breakfast -- all presumably happy memories and positive associations, even if only of breakfast cereal shooting from a cannon," says Grayson.

"This obviously could not have been what Tchaikovsky intended, but it helps to explain why Americans enjoy the piece."

"We remake meanings all the time when we recombine things and pieces," says Root. "When people are raising that Budweiser to the fireworks listening to the '1812 Overture,' they aren't stupid. They are relating to it in an individual way."

So, while its roots lie in a conflict continents away and its purpose was to fete Russian superiority, Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture" is now as American as apple pie.

Andrew Druckenbrod can be reached at adruckenbrod@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1750.

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